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Poetry and Literature From Latvia: 16 Books to Get You Started

Latvia, like its Baltic neighbors, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The tiny country (population under 2 million) with pristine forests, abounding in lakes and rivers, spent, what Anda Baklāne, literary critic and scholar put wryly, “700 years of slavery” under the Germans, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedes, the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and a short period of Nazi occupation. Today Latvia is in effervescence, with literature playing a central role, and yet it wouldn’t be quite Latvian to be enthusiastic about it. Indeed, the country decided to portray itself in its marketing campaign for the London Book Fair as a nation of introverts. “We are different. Latvians can feel deeply confused when kissed on both cheeks…should you compliment a Latvian, they will turn red-white-red. Latvia is one of the world's most introvert [ed] nations. And so are our writers, of course. And we are proud of it. We allow our books [to] speak for us, since literature is the perfect world for introverts, ” said Una Rozenbauma, director of the campaign.

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A literary and political power couple, Rainis and Aspazija

Although several Latvians began to write novels towards the end of the 19th century, the couple known as Rainis and Aspazija were, without a doubt, the most influential and beloved authors, today known as national treasures. Jānis Pliekšāns, nom de plume, Rainis, was born in 1865 and wrote plays, poetry and also practiced politics. His wife, Elza Rozenberga, known as Aspazija, was born the same year as Rainis, and was a journalist, author and feminist.

Between the two of them they spoke eight languages, were politically engaged socialists, and became known as leaders in the growing movement for Latvia’s independence but also in the creation of the country’s identity. A victim of Tsarist Russian crackdowns, Rainis was exiled to Russia, and after a brief return to Latvia the couple left again for Switzerland fearing reprisals because of their continued political activity. They spent 15 years in exile, returning to Latvia in 1920.

The Latvian state that was proclaimed in 1918 was short-lived, as it was for its neighbors, Lithuania and Estonia. Occupation by the Soviet Union meant thousands of dissidents were sent to Siberia, and the brief German occupation in 1941 annihilated almost entirely the Jewish population in Latvia. 

During Soviet Latvia, a number of fine poets and authors were published, such as Aleksandrs Čaks, Albert Bels, Regīna Ezera, Juris Kunnoss, Zigmunds Skujinš, Imants Ziedonis, and Knuts Skujenieks, while Vizma Belševica’s work, although written during the Soviet period, was published in the 1990s. The shadow cast by the Soviet occupation was long, however, whether in terms of persecution of authors, or pressure on them to collaborate. Recently Jānis Rokpelnis, known as one of the greatest poets of his generation, admitted he had been recruited as an informant for the KGB. But Latvians seem open to knowing more about themselves and this painful moment of their history, and in May 2018, KGB archives will be opened to the public. One of the most fruitful literary undertakings to be born recently took inspiration from a project that writer Gundega Repše launched in 2011, which brought together 12 Latvian authors to write a short story collection about 20th century Latvia. From there, a more ambitious project called We.Latvia.The 20th Century developed; authors agreed to write historical novels, each choosing a specific period of time. So far 12 novels have been published in this series and two are already available in English; a third will come out later this year. The first book in the series, In the Shadow of Rooster Hill, is set in 1905 during Latvia’s unsuccessful revolution against German landlords and Russian political power, and is by journalist and author Osvalds Zebris. Jantar Publishing will bring out the English translation, by Jayde Thomas Will.

Author Pauls Bankovskis’ 18, translated into English by Ieva Lešinska and published by Vagabond Voices, focuses on a pivotal moment for Latvia, when it gained its independence. Bankovskis jokes that he doesn’t know how he ended up with the most important year in Latvian history: “This all started with an email exchange between all of us. It was a chain email so it was a mess. Somehow during this exchange we all ended up with a time frame. Maybe no one wanted this year, it was so important…”

Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk, translated into English by Margita Gailitis and published by Peirene Press, covers two periods of time during Latvia’s Soviet occupation, the first following the end of World War II, and again in the 1970s and 80s.

Poetry is an integral part of Latvia’s literary canon and is widely read by adults as well as children, ingrained in the culture from a time when traditional folk songs and poetry, or dainas were part of everyday life. Luckily a number of poetry collections are forthcoming, including the raw and powerful poems of Madara Gruntmane, to be published in a collection called Narcoses, by Parthian.

The Orbita Group’s poetry deserves to be discovered, and not just because it represents a certain Russian-speaking population. A collective of Latvian Russian poets, photographers, musicians and multimedia artists, it promotes Latvian poetry in Russian and also translates contemporary Latvian poetry into Russian.

Below is a selection of 16 books as a taster of Latvia's inspiring and compelling poetry and literature.


Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are the Market Focus countries at this year’s London Book Fair, 10-14 April 2018. Public author events around the UK are organised by the British Council Literature. 

Banner image by Reinis Petersons

The Golden Horse

The Golden Horse (Zelta zirgs), a play written by Rainis, is one of the most important pieces of Latvian literature. The Golden Horse is a fairy tale that provided Latvians with lessons to achieve cultural autonomy and independence. Idealism, altruism and unity were the keys for victory over Imperialist Russia and the Baltic Germans who controlled Latvia at the turn of the 20th century. Rainis wrote The Golden Horse following the 1905 Russian/Latvian Revolution and before the Declaration of Independence in 1918. He and his wife Aspazija were the spiritual leaders in the fight for greater rights for workers, peasants and Latvian culture. Although independence was achieved, it was short lived. The Soviet Union annexed Latvia during World War II. Fifty years passed, and a new opportunity for freedom arose as the Soviet Union disintegrated. Therefore, Latvia achieved its second opportunity for independence in 1991. In this play, a young peasant climbs the mountain of blue glass and green ice, wakes the princess and saves the kingdom. Good prevails over evil. Light overcomes darkness. Idealism, altruism and unity provide the path to victory at any level of society. The "Afterword" of the book includes an extensive discussion of Latvian history and Rainis' crucial role in Latvia's independence movement. Translated by Vilis Inde.

Seed in Snow

This first US publication of Knuts Skujenieks—one of Latvia's foremost contemporary poets—is the author's most important and widely-translated body of work. Convicted in 1962 of anti-Soviet sentiment, Skujenieks wrote these poems during seven years of imprisonment at a labor camp in Mordovia. Vivid and expressive, this collection overcomes the physical experience of confinement in order to assert a limitless creative freedom. Translated by ‎ Bitite Vinklers.

Each Day Catches Fire

Each Day Catches Fire presents work from the rich period of the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the prose poems Ziedonis called "epiphanies"; he characterized them as "little impulses, sparks, in the light of which some moments in our life appear in unusually sharp relief" that he was prompted to write by the "positive life rhythm in Latvian folk songs." Like the observant wayfarer he was, with whimsical, surprising imagery he guides us through the Latvian countryside and rural life he knew so intimately, depicts an animistic nature, comments on human relationships, and stresses the power of song and of words themselves. Translated by Bitite Vinklers.

18

As the First World War comes to an end, chaos takes over in much of Europe and even the victors sense that the old certainties have been lost in the massacre. In Latvia it appears that two centuries of Russian rule are coming to an end, but other powers and destabilising factors persist. Pauls Bankovskis's novel examining this most important of years in his country's history reveals how a new republic emerged from disorder and chance, gradually but also erratically. Painstaking in his research, he even walked himself the full length of the escape route to Finland taken by his protagonist. This is the story of a year and its far from unified people. Two different Latvias, almost a century apart, one looking uncertainly to the future and the other uncomprehendingly to the past, inhabit very different eras and use each other to inform their own actions. Translated by Ieva Lešinska.

Five Fingers

Five-year-old Laura was born in one of Joseph Stalin’s prison camps in Siberia. When the book opens, she and her parents are on their long journey back to Latvia, a country Laura knows only from the exuberant descriptions that whirled about the Gulag. Upon her arrival, however, she must come to terms with the conflicting images of the life she sees around her and the fairytale Latvia she grew up hearing about and imagining. Based on the author’s life, and written in lush language that defies the narrative’s many hardships, Five Fingers tells the story of a girl who moves between worlds in the hopes of finding a Latvia that she can call home. Translated by Margita Gailitis.

Among the Living and the Dead

Although this book is non-fiction, it will be interesting to anyone wanting to know more about Latvian history, told as a story:

"It's long been assumed of the region where my grandmother was born...that at some point each year the dead will come home," Inara Verzemnieks writes in this exquisite story of war, exile, and reconnection. Her grandmother's stories recalled one true home: the family farm left behind in Latvia, where, during WWII, her grandmother Livija and her grandmother's sister, Ausma, were separated. They would not see each other again for more than 50 years. Raised by her grandparents in Washington State, Inara grew up among expatriates, scattering smuggled Latvian sand over the coffins of the dead, singing folk songs about a land she had never visited. When Inara discovers the scarf Livija wore when she left home, in a box of her grandmother's belongings, this tangible remnant of the past points the way back to the remote village where her family broke apart. There it is said the suspend their exile once a year for a pilgrimage through forests and fields to the homes they left behind. Coming to know Ausma and the trauma of her exile to Siberia under Stalin, Inara pieces together Livija's survival through years as a refugee. Weaving these two parts of the family story together in spellbinding, lyrical prose, she gives us a profound and cathartic account of loss, survival, resilience, and love.

Soviet Milk

This novel considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual. The central character in the story tries to follow her calling as a doctor. But then the state steps in. She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter. Banished to a village in the Latvian countryside, her sense of isolation increases. Will she and her daughter be able to return to Riga when political change begins to stir? Translated by Margita Gailitis.

Six Latvian Poets

In this second anthology introducing contemporary Baltic poetry, we meet the younger generation of Latvian poets who started writing and publishing after the country gained independence following the disintegration of the Soviet Union of which it had been part for half a century, a generation whose poetics is placed in a wider context by the editor and translator Ieva Lešinska and by the leading poet and translator of the older generation Juris Kronbergs, in their superbly informative introductions which offer many insights, both serious and witty, into the present and past of Latvian poetry.

Come to Me

Karlis Verdins has a modern sensibility suffused with urban sophistication. In everyday scenes he shows us what's most noble in human relationships, alongside the basest fears and anxieties. Irony and sarcasm somehow never seem to obscure the warmth of his voice and his attention to intimate details.  Verdins himself says: "I try to say something that I would like to present as beautiful or, on the contrary, something that can not and must not be taken as beautiful."  Translated by Ieva Lesinska.

High Tide

Told more or less in reverse chronological order, High Tide is the story of Ieva, her dead lover, her imprisoned husband, and the way their youthful decisions dramatically impacted the rest of their lives. Taking place over three decades, High Tide functions as a sort of psychological mystery, with the full scope of Ieva's personal situation—and the relationship between the three main characters—only becoming clear at the end of the novel.

One of Latvia's most notable young writers, Abele is a fresh voice in European fiction—her prose is direct, evocative, and exceptionally beautiful. The combination of strikingly lush descriptive writing with the precision with which she depicts the minds of her characters elevates this novel from a simple story of a love triangle into a fascinating, philosophical, haunting book. Translated by Kaija Straumanis.

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Olivia is a journalist and editor and manages the editorial content for Bookwitty in English. She is based in Paris.

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